Part II: Being Sam Hughes

By Bob Gordon

Amidst the guns of August, Sam Hughes was in heaven. He had his dream job — Minister of Militia and Defence — at the ideal time, while the country was at war. Irascibly and only semi-officially, he had briefly fought in South Africa before being sent home. This time around, he was Canada’s supreme warlord and was hell-bent on putting his mark on Canada’s contribution to the war effort.


Two years later, in the House of Commons, his description of the mobilization would speak volumes. “There was really a call to arms, like the fiery cross passing through the Highlands of Scotland or the mountains of Ireland in former days.” Hughes saw himself as a clan chieftain, not a minister of the Crown, and Canada was his clan. The Cabinet, Prime Minister, Permanent Force, and even the British Army be damned! They were mere know-nothings, described by Hughes as “his boys.”

Hughes inspects some German trenches during WW1.

Hughes inspects some German trenches during WW1.


In typical Hughes fashion, he immediately made two momentous decisions that would define the First Contingent. Impetuously, he scrapped the Permanent Forces’ mobilization plans, choosing to mobilize through the militia, sort of, until he quickly countermanded his own order. Men thus enlisted, he decreed, were not to assemble at Camp Petawawa on the Ottawa River, as it was too far from a port of embarkation. Instead, the First Contingent would assemble at Valcartier, Quebec. This would have them within marching distance of the port at Quebec City. There was only one small problem, Camp Valcartier did not exist. Hughes proposed to build the camp while the nation mobilized. Remarkably, both of these ‘seat of the pants’ decisions were met with great success.


In the summer of 1914, Canada had a comprehensive plan for a response to an international crisis known as a ‘War Book’. It detailed the responsibilities and actions of each branch and department of government, and was known as Defence Scheme No. 1. Memorandum C.1209 outlined the plans for mobilization. The plan was prepared by Col. W.G. Gwatkin, a British staff officer, under the direction of the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Brig-Gen W.D. Otter, another British staff officer on loan. Ultimately, an infantry division and a mounted brigade totalling 24,000 were to be ready to depart for overseas. Although the plan was far from perfect, it provided a framework for mobilization approved by the War Office.


The plan called for the troops to be attested by Military District and assemble locally to be kitted out and armed before concentrating. Each Military District had a quota and, in general, the infantry came from the six Eastern Districts while the west provided the mounted element.
Hughes threw the “bar room loafers” plan, as he called it, out the window and employed the militia. Night lettergrams were sent to each of the 226 unit commanders of the Active Militia.

They were ordered to immediately prepare lists of qualified volunteers, and to submit their names and total numbers to the Minister’s office where they would be individually vetted. This of course, was impossible. The Ministry, let alone the Minister, simply did not have time for the task. The waters were further clouded when the Minister appeared to reverse himself on August 10, and reinstated the Permanent Force scheme. The net result, in practice, was that infantry were recruited through Hughes’ scheme while the artillery, engineers, and other specialists tended to muster following the original plan, proceeding to Valcartier as equipped units.


The concentration point for this irregularly raised force was also arbitrarily changed to a piece of undeveloped land near the port of embarkation, Quebec City. Camp Valcartier was to be built on land located on the banks of the Jacques Cartier River, 25 kilometres northwest of Quebec City. By the end of the war, it would encompass over 12,000 acres. The site had been acquired in 1912 as a central location for the summer camp of the Quebec militia. However, in the intervening years, no development had been undertaken. There was no branch line connected to the Canadian Northern Railway; there were no ranges for the recruits to learn musketry and familiarize themselves with the Ross rifle; there were no tent lines cleared; and of course, there were no barracks, offices, water, or electricity.


Hughes set to construct a camp faster than recruits could be hustled to the site. He contracted with former Quebec MP, dedicated Tory and lumber baron William Price to oversee the project. Price then contracted with Bate and McMahon for the construction cost plus 14%. On August 4, Major A.P. Deroche, RCE and Assistant Director of Works and Buildings, inspected the site and laid out a camp. Construction commenced on Saturday August 8.


Within weeks, two pumps with a total capacity of 1.5 million gallons per day were operating through mains of four and six inches. Telephone lines connected unit HQs to the Camp HQ, and both telephone and telegraph connected it on to Quebec City. A small power plant on the river electrified the camp.


The Great Northern Railway was contracted to lay almost 7 kilometres of track, including four sidings, three loading platforms, a freight shed and auxiliary buildings. The rifle range was over two miles long and included 1,500 targets. Even the Duke of Connaught was forced to admit that Hughes had gotten it right.


Incredibly, the troops began arriving on August 18, a mere ten days after construction began. By mid-September, it was home to 32,000 troops. Historians have agreed that it was a remarkable achievement. Desmond Morton describes it as “miraculous,” with Hughes’ biographer taking it a little further, referring to the feat as “magical.” It was, undeniably, a superhuman achievement that — coupled with the rapid deployment of the First Contingent — made Hughes the ‘cock of the walk.’ He was Canada’s Generalissimo, and the country was marching to the beat of his drum.

In the beginning, Hughes had a very good war, but even then, voices of dissent were rising. The British were bamboozled by the Byzantine command structure in England, with Hughes running a shadow staff and various personal emissaries, notably Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), on special missions, with personal authority that clouded roles, responsibilities, and authority. The staff of the CEF resented his constant interference, particularly in personnel matters. At Valcartier, Canon Frederick Scott likened him to Napoleon and wrote, “to me it seemed that his personality and despotic rule hung like a dark shadow over the camp.” A ranker simply noted, “It wouldn’t have surprised any of us if somebody had assassinated” Hughes. Even ‘his boys’ were eventually booing and hissing when he rose to address them.


Throughout 1915, disquiet with Hughes’ performance emerged in the House and within the ranks of the Conservative Party. Cabinet meetings often descended into shouting matches between Hughes and Finance Minister Thomas White. In the House, Canadian munitions production was criticized. Contracts, costs, quality control, and quantity were all bones of contention. There were also minor scandals around the Minister’s procurement of horses and drugs for the CEF. Hughes impetuosity and independence also grew, driven both by his personal popularity across the country and his increasing paranoia.


Eventually, criticism came to focus on the quality of the Ross rifle. Hughes, a noted marksmen, had been on the committee that evaluated and approved the Ross. Afterwards, he took criticism of the Ross personally. He saw it as an insult to his intelligence, and an insinuation that he was not doing his best by his beloved militia. Emotionally, intellectually, and politically Hughes was committed to fighting for the Ross rifle to the “bitter end,” as he assured the House in 1907. A decade later, he was still defending it vociferously despite its manifest failure and withdrawal from service in favour of the Lee-Enfield.


Personal loyalty and recognition of his accomplishments led Borden to stand by Hughes longer than was sensible or politically sound. However, by November 1916, the Prime Minister had to move. He unveiled an earlier letter of resignation from Hughes, composed and delivered during a fit of exaggerated contrition, and announced that it was being accepted. Apologies, contrition, anger, and threats all failed to move the PM, and Hughes career as a Cabinet Minister was over.